The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Edward J. Dupuy

How great, my God, is this force of memory, how exceedingly great! It is like a vast and boundless subterranean shrine. Who has ever reached the bottom of it?

(Augustine, Confessions)

Without memory, the narrative act, let alone any other artistic form, would seem an impossibility. Like a piano keyboard, the “boundless subterranean shrine” provides for infinite arrangements—now in one key, next in another—and like the music created, memory patterns, disrupts, suggests, reveals, conceals, creates, destroys, invites, and puts off. It recollects the known, calls forth the unknown, animates selfhood, or challenges the very notion of self. As such it comes as no surprise that memory is the sine qua non of novels and novel writing, in whatever epoch. Memory can be hailed in the early modern, serve as the object of recovery in the modern, or be denied in the postmodern. In every period, however, it remains, positively or negatively, a focal point for novels and novelists.

Memory in Literary History

Each era in literary history displays a characteristic understanding of memory, and so it is possible to speak of an evolution of memory. The transition from epic tale to renaissance drama to the early novel, for example, suggests a radical transformation of memory. The epic poet recited from memory the accounts of the great deeds of founding cultural figures. The poet told of defining wars replete with national heroism and individual honor. Western myths of the classical era recount origins, in illud tempus (in that time), of good and evil, of creation, and even of time itself (see MYTHOLOGY). All this transpired first in the oral tradition, through the power of memory. It might even be possible to speak of that era possessing a collective memory, the shared consciousness of time, and thus history and culture through the recounting of story, legend, and myth. The world of myth exemplifies circular time, the eternal recurrence of events that frame time, space, government, and everything that moves under the sun. Thus Plato could say in the Timaeus (360 BC) that time is the “moving image of eternity” and that memory is the recollection of what has already been known in eternity but forgotten in time. And the later Greek ideal expressed by the Stoics manifested not a reveling in time but an endurance of its repetition.

Juxtaposed with our postmodern world, however, one might find the Greek view unfathomable. The denizens of the West, from the dawn of the modern era to the present day, would be hard pressed to speak of a shared consciousness or collective memory—except perhaps in the puzzling connection between novel, novelist, and reader during the act of reading, or in other forms of linguistic exchange. Instead of collectivity or the possibility of a shared recollection, the contemporary consciousness revels in difference, individuality, its own creativity, or in the case of Samuel Beckett, the impossibility of positing an “I.”

William Shakespeare can be viewed as a transitional figure between a Western culture that shared its foundations of meaning and origins through recollection in memory and the radical disjunction of memory and collectivity. In that sense he best expresses the early modern period and he anticipates the fragmentation of consciousness (1603—6, King Lear), the will to power (1601—7, Macbeth; ca. 1603, Othello), and a radical deracination and doubt (1599—1601, Hamlet), all decidedly contemporary issues. He writes of the deeds of the great, to be sure (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth), and in so doing he both defines history and recounts it. As the problematic Henry V tells Katherine: “Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confin'd within the weak list of a country's fashion. We are the makers of manners...” (ca. 1599, Henry V, V.ii.269— 71). In these simple lines of wooing, Henry at once recalls the place of the king in his age and heralds an age rife with individual definitions of manners, and one could say, of time and history as expressed through a deracinated and individual memory.

The Rise of the Novel and the Autobiography

It may come as no surprise that the novel arises soon after Shakespeare's genius. Ian Watt, for his part, argues that in order for the novel to rise as a literary form it was necessary that the ordinary activities of ordinary individuals become notable. Hamlet may be the Prince of Denmark, but he is also very much an individual who battles with the memory of loss, the vicissitudes of history, and the call to act in time. In these attitudes, he presages the contemporary world. Hamlet could very nearly stand in for William Faulkner's Quentin Compson, who in both Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and The Sound and the Fury (1929) tries to piece together the fragmented history of his past, of the American South, and, one might say of history itself. And it is no secret that Faulkner borrowed the title of the 1929 work directly from Shakespeare's Macbeth: “[Life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (V.v.26—28).

Quentin is no epic hero, prince, or person of remarkable stature. Nor, for that matter, is his “idiot” brother Benjamin (Benjy). And yet their story bears the truth of Watt's argument about the novel—that it steps into the literary landscape to tell of the ordinary deeds of everyday people. The Sound and the Fury carries within it elements of the picaresque, the early example of the novel that tells in episodic form of the wanderings of the pícaro, or rogue, an “ordinary” person if ever there was one. While Quentin's section in Faulkner's remarkable novel is exceedingly stylized, the success of that section rests partially on Quentin's picaresque wanderings around Boston—and his dark wanderings in memory—ending at the fateful bridge spanning the Charles River.

In order for the pícaro to find an audience, however, and in order for the novel to gain a foothold, a transition of memory and history must also have taken place. Georg lukács calls the novel “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” By this I take him to mean that the novel emerges in response to the demise of cyclical time and as a result of the perils of linear and unrepeatable time. And Walter Reed says that the novel “opposes itself to other [traditional] forms of literature,” and that this opposition finds expression clearly in the novel's audience—“not a community of listeners attending to an epic ’song’...Rather, [the novel's audience] is a solitary, anonymous figure, scanning a bulk of printed pages, out of a sense of nothing better to do” (Reed; see also Dupuy).

It is the individual, both as character and audience, which the novel depicts. Furthermore, it is ordinary events in time and memory that the novel recounts. Time, memory, and the novel are thus inextricably joined. It is not surprising that at the same time novels were finding their way into the hands of solitary readers, autobiography also arises (see LIFE WRITING). It is as though memory and the individual have been cut loose from the stays of cyclical and epic time, and they seek mooring through the literary forms of the novel and autobiography that uniquely address self and memory. Georges Gusdorf has noted that one of the “conditions and limits” of autobiography involves a radical new awareness of time—a self bereft of the mythic structures that held the “terrors of history” at bay. Much the same could be said for the novel. Memory and history find themselves freed (and threatened) in the early modern period with its newfound awareness of the linearity, the nonrepeating quality, of time and history. The novel and autobiography emerge at once to express it and to quell the nascent unease such a realization evokes.

Memory in Autobiography

Autobiography is an important consideration here, because the person who takes the time to write his or her life must use memory to do so. If a person's life could be charted on a time line, then the autobiographer stops at a point on that line to look back in memory and fashion the story. James Olney, perhaps the greatest of the students of autobiography, has noted that in writing his first book, Metaphors of Self (1972), he wanted to explore ways writers transform experience into literature. In that sense, he did not consider the work a strict study of autobiography, which he did not try to define. Instead he looked at consciousness, time, and memory, and the interplay of those with a written text. Olney considers what a novel, a series of poems, an entire oeuvre, or a self-proclaimed autobiography might say about the “self” who produced them. (And what they might say to the reader about time and memory—and his or her experience of “self.”) Taken even further, what might they say about the age in which the works were produced, and the “self's” understanding of itself in that age? These are the questions Olney explored in his first works. In his later works, and particularly in his magisterial Memory and Narrative (1998), he refines and deepens that search to include not only time and memory, but also their correlate: narrative. And he chooses three giants—Augustine, Rousseau, and Beckett—as his signposts in the vast history of literature, but he makes several intermediate stops along the way to consider works that might traditionally be considered “autobiography,” and many others that may not.

In this landmark volume, Olney notes a consistent pairing in Augustine of remembering and confessing, recalling and narrating, recollecting and telling: “a single activity of dual dynamic, recalling a story backward and telling it forward” (1998). The dual dynamic, furthermore, recapitulates Augustine's tripartite understanding of time—the present of time past (memory), the present of time present (awareness), and the present of time future (anticipation). The act of narration involves all three inasmuch as the recitation is held in anticipation, moves through recitation itself, and then is “stored” again in memory for another telling. For Augustine, memory provides the link, the continuity and stability of being across time. Memory connects past experience and present consciousness and thus allows for what Augustine considered a stability of “self.”

By the time Samuel Beckett appears on the scene, however, such continuity and stability are called radically into doubt. Augustine would say the past is present in memory and is thus in some sense, verifiable. Beckett suggests that the past is so removed from the present that it cannot possibly be verifiable, and therefore the I that presumably supplies the continuity across time is likewise suspect. Hence, Beckett, “like other writers of our time, has altered the calling into doubt, in the most radical way, memory's capacity to establish a relationship to our past and hence a relationship to ourselves grown out of the past” (Olney, 1988). Augustine's vast “subterranean shrine” that allows a subject to say “I remember” in a present consciousness is not available in the same way to Beckett. For Beckett, there remains only the infinite regress of memory and narrative, the endless attempt, as in Krapp's Last Tape (1958), to try to tell from memory, and to try to remember the attempt at telling in memory the trying to tell and trying to remember—and then musing at the consistently failed attempts.

St. Augustine set the stage for hundreds of years—leading to Jean-Jacques Rousseau—for Olney, a transitional figure who in his emphasis on his absolute uniqueness as expressed in feeling and memory, sets the stage not only for the Romantics who would follow him, but also for the unverifiable memory of Beckett. If Augustine formulated the triad of memory, self, and God, then Rousseau not only reduces the terms to memory and self, but those terms are further reduced to feeling: “I have need of no other memories; it is enough if I enter again into my inner self.” That inner self dwells in memory, but memory is a function of feeling. Rousseau sets out in his Confessions to tell the “history of his soul.” That “history” is the history of his feelings. Though they be unverifiable, their “truth” rests on their uniqueness such that Rousseau presents himself as having no parallel either before or after.

While I have shown memory's relation to the rise of the novel and of autobiography, and while I have followed James Olney in his tracing of the major stages of memory and narrative, I have avoided mention of T. S. Eliot and Marcel Proust, two other giants in whose works memory is not only an agent but also a theme. Eliot's Four Quartets (1943), among others, and Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (1913—27, Remembrance of Things Past) stand also as seminal works in the evolution of an understanding and expression of memory, Eliot for passing through the remembered gate at Little Gidding, for example, and Proust for the tremendous outpouring of narrative arising from a remembered sensate experience.

I suggested early on that memory is the sine qua non of novels and novelists. Faulkner stands as a colossus among writers of the American South, a region haunted by memory, as many commentators note. Yet Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren (both in his poetry and novels), Richard Wright, Thomas Wolfe, Maya Angelou, William Styron, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Walker Percy, among many others, all trouble over the question of memory and self, time, and history. Among many others on the world stage, Wole Soyinka's Ake (1981), Nathalie Sarraute's Enfance (1983, Childhood), Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976), Ronald Fraser's In Search of a Past (1984), and Primo Levi's Il sistema periodico (1975, The Periodic Table) all offer unique expressions of memory and its problematic role in relation to time, consciousness, and “self.” In contemporary novels, too, memory finds its place. That place may or may not be expressed as the vast storehouse of Augustine, the unique feeling of Rousseau, or even the radical disconnection of Beckett. But memory is there, in all its ineffable and inexhaustible nature.

SEE ALSO: Narrative, Psychological Novel.


1. Cox, J. (1989), Recovering Literature's Lost Ground.

2. Dupuy, E.J. (1996), Autobiography in Walker Percy.

3. Eakin, P.J. (1985), Fictions in Autobiography.

4. Eakin, P.J. (1999), How Our Lives Become Stories.

5. Gusdorf, G. (1980), “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” trans. J. Olney, in Autobiography, ed. J. Olney.

6. Lukács, G. (1971), Theory of the Novel.

7. Olney, J. (1972), Metaphors of Self.

8. Olney, J., ed. (1998), Memory and Narrative.

9. Reed, W. (1981), Exemplary History of the Novel.

10. Watt, I. (1957), Rise of the Novel.